Flattening Music

Music is being flattened, and no one talks about it. Concert music specifically seems increasingly to have trouble convincing audiences and programmers that it can stand on its own. For today’s audiences, the experience of just sitting quietly and listening to an involved abstract musical work seems no longer sufficient or complete. The ability to discern a narrative in a dynamic musical work is disappearing and addition of other media and crossover music is taking over. Witness the proliferation in programming today to either add visual components or include global or popular music or musicians. The pressure to incorporate or enrich classical music this way comes under the brand of creating concerts more accessible and appealing to wider audiences—to “save classical music,” as we frequently read in media headlines. But enrichment gained simply by multiplying or broadening sensory input is a lie. It markets itself as a hip way to illuminate, ornament, or refresh our notions of music, but instead it flattens music into background accompaniment by distraction and entertainment. We neglect to notice that a most profound quality of Western music—that of bringing an audience into deep focus and a state of active listening—is quietly slipping away.

Concert programs today exude a positive aura of inclusivity and open-mindedness, encouraging an egalitarian approach to all music. The freedom today to program absolutely anything especially in new music concerts is a welcome relief from the rigid social pressure of the avante-garde culture of the 20th century, a time particularly when bucking the pressure to compose and/or appreciate serial and atonal music amounted to career suicide for a composer and mocking derision towards the average music listener (famously remembered but misunderstood in Milton Babbitt’s article “Who cares if you listen?”).I myself experienced the tail end of those nightmare times. But indeed I am coming from that perspective. The “emperor’s new clothes” fear from that time not to respond critically to music that was either incomprehensible or lousy has today been replaced with a pressure to accept all musical genres as equal and of equal quality. There is a reverse snobbery in maintaining all musical genres are equivalent.

What especially disturbs me is the current trend of adding complete pieces of video, theater, dance, etc. to an already complete abstract musical work or adding different musical genres to a classical concert, all to heighten the audience experience of listening to live performers in a concert hall setting. This creates an aesthetic dissonance, one that often surfaces in the uncertainty of audience reaction. If a visual component is placed on the stage, does one focus more on the music or the visual when each is so independent? When adding global or popular music, should one still listen actively or relax into the “groove?” Should one clap along to the music and voice approval for solos, or stay quiet? Confusion of social propriety is a frequent issue when the traditions of concert hall collide with those of other venues; it is obvious and perhaps even trivial. But the confusion from “additions” to modes of listening is subtler and disturbing. Listening seems to flow to the path of least resistance. Given a cue to emphasize other sensory modes, the mind relaxes comfortably into passive listening. Watching instead becomes active and provides the primary aesthetic cues. The dynamic properties a composer struggles to impart in music flatten down to a single layerof accompaniment.

Changing the way music is presented then changes the mode of attention and listening, dramatically altering its dimensionality. Since the concert hall is dedicated to the fine art of listening, does it stand to reason that all music is best heard in this mode? Does it make sense to place any style of music alongside any other? The impulse to do so is a response to the unlimited musical genres, styles, and histories now so readily accessible in recordings, internet, and live performance. Never before has such a vast spectrum of music been available. As a healthy reaction to open beyond familiar and pre-determined judgments to encompass awareness of the multitudes of global and popular styles, music lovers come to embrace a political correctness mode, essentially chanting the mantra “It’s all good!” After all, who can judge between African drumming and Renaissance motets? We are fortunate to have it all and we should enjoy it all equally. Value judgments and discrimination are discouraged. It’s interesting that this mantra recognizes that the sheer number of world musical styles is too vast to master, but insists such knowledge is not necessary, that all music is ours to use and hear any way we would like, to be presented, manipulated, and combined in any possible way freely. Intoxicating stuff. When it is all clumped together, what happens to the listening experience?

As a pre-concert lecturer for the Los Angeles Phlharmonic, I interact frequently with audiences and can attest that listening to traditional classical music is suffering a reduction to static expectation as well. If classical audiences are losing the ability to follow Beethoven, what tools will they possibly have to follow contemporary concert music? Inclusion of global and popular genres in classical concerts takes listeners on a never-ending chase to absorb different styles. Fado, Indonesian gamelan, reggae, Tibetan chant, Gagaku, klezmer, celtic, bluegrass, samba…we’re supposed to know it all. The mantra “It’s all good!” belies a terrible complexity facing us all today—with the iPod and the ubiquitous “one button touch” access to global, historical, and popular music of every genre, how do we get to know it all? More importantly, should we get to know it all? Beyond the implicit challenge to know a little bit about everything, how can we approach listening in a way that doesn’t leave it flat and on the surface, dependent on extra-musical cues, visual or textual, to determine whether we recognize or “like” the sound we hear in order to follow a musical thread? If music listening does flow to the path of least resistance, are we fated to reach a common denominator where we hear all music through the filter of pop song structure? That’s a very satisfying framework for hearing Bob Dylan or Lady Gaga, but not so good for Beethoven or Ligeti.

What seems certain is that just throwing the musical kitchen sink at listeners carries the danger of flattening music into a single dimension. Active music listening is the hidden half of the unspoken dialogue that sustains the bond of focus between composer, performer and audience that lies at the core of abstract concert music. Without that, music is just another element competing for attention in the highly congested audio spectrum of daily life. The challenge is for us to replace the mantra “It’s all good!” with a realization that includes both wonder and caution: we are world wide and one inch deep.